Freshfields’ Senior Partner discusses her historic election, building a pipeline of diverse talent, and the importance of actually taking vacation days. By Joanna Donne.
Every five years, the law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer holds an election to select its Senior Partner, an event well-covered by industry publications but typically ignored by mainstream media outlets. The firm’s most recent election, held in September last year, broke that pattern, eliciting lengthy profiles in the FT and The Sunday Times of the groundbreaking victor, Georgia Dawson, the firm’s Asia Managing Partner.
The surprise, at least for industry insiders, stemmed partly from Dawson’s background. As well as its litigation and antitrust practices, Freshfields is renowned for its M&A advisory practice. In 2020, that practice advised on deals worth more than $363 billion—fourth globally according to Mergermarket’s 2020 rankings. Yet Dawson’s background is in litigation and regulation. Freshfields is eyeing further growth in the US—which accounted for about 40% of global M&A activity in 2020—and its strongholds are in Europe. Yet Dawson ran its Asia business and was based in Singapore and Hong Kong.
Another factor was gender. Prior to her election, no woman had ever led Freshfields in its 278-year history. Nor had a woman ever before been chosen to lead one of the five venerable London-based firms known as the “Magic Circle,” a label that Dawson regards as needing a refresh, for Freshfields is a global rather than British firm.
Dawson’s victory was hailed as a marker of progress not only for Freshfields but also for the legal industry more broadly. She has built a reputation for championing diversity and inclusion, having appeared for three consecutive years on the Financial Times and Yahoo! OUTstanding Top 50 LGBT+ Ally Executives lists. She was also named the LGBT+ organization Stonewall’s Global Senior Champion in 2019. Diversity and inclusion was a pillar of her campaign for Senior Partner.
In 2021, Dawson’s first year as Senior Partner, half of Freshfields’ 22 new partners were women, compared with 19% the year before—an achievement for which Dawson claims no credit. “Some of the press coverage would suggest that this improvement was attributable to my new management team. But in fact, the prior management team and our practice group leaders effectively built that class of partners as a result of long running efforts to improve diversity in the firm.”
Beyond media interest, Dawson has been surprised by the impact her appointment has made. In the months that followed it, peers from other legal firms offered their support. She told Brunswick that letters and emails now come from total strangers. One typed letter offered both congratulations and music suggestions. More familiar congratulations came from Dawson’s father, who celebrated 50 years as an Australian solicitor the same year Dawson celebrated her election triumph.
Dawson, who is relocating from Singapore to London, recently made time to speak with Joanna Donne, a Brunswick Partner who began her career as a solicitor with the law firm Linklaters. A few weeks after their conversation took place, Linklaters announced the appointment of its first-ever female Senior Partner.